Movies that ache with noble intentions, particularly concerning differences of race and culture, are usually, indirectly, every bit as reductive and condescending as the hateful generalities they hope to refute (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Forrest Gump, Paul Haggis’s Crash, and Lakeview Terrace immediately come to mind). It would be easy to write off Ocean of Pearls as a TV movie-of-the-week, except I can’t recall a recent TV movie I’ve seen that’s this bad.
The film, concerning a gifted Sikh doctor (Omid Abtahi) pressured to conform to American (white) customs in order to land a promising position at a rising transplant institute, is a greatest-hits package of cheap racial shortcuts: the white-guilt temptress with good intentions casually oblivious to the doctor’s culture; the boss who means well but pushes for compromise anyway; the doormat girlfriend who epitomizes pure, nourishing values; the disapproving father; the doormat mother who just really wants everyone to get along; the white guy who threatens the Sikh with his cocksure whiteness; and so on. The only stereotype left unturned is the homeless dying boy, and in his place is a middle-aged patient (Brenda Strong) who can’t afford her life-saving operation.
An interesting movie can be made of a man fractured and tortured by paranoid, fascist post-9/11 American values. But, in order to do so, that picture must be willing to empathize, to play fair. What if the Sikh (please note I’m referring to Abtahi’s character this way pointedly, as that’s all he’s really defined as) found problematic American fashions and concerns more comforting, more in tune with whoever inside him is trying to emerge? If the character were secretly gay, that sort of interior blossoming would be encouraged, but because he’s secretly attracted to American customs, he’s to be written off as self-hating and confused. It’s almost always unthinkable in one of these pictures that the father or the dull, unimaginative girlfriend, both as unquestionably (if more insidiously) conforming as anyone else, ever be challenged. (Another hypocrisy: the family rides the good doctor for his actions over the entire movie, yet he’s supposed to be an insensitive sellout for questioning the girlfriend’s occupation.)
Ocean of Pearls is, underneath the gross sentimentality, racist and shameless, and it might be dangerous if it weren’t so forgettable and on-the-nose. This kind of picture, intent on broadening people’s horizons, really only encourages further tuning out—reducing shared, confusing, infuriating human experience to trite, naïve lessons in faux tolerance.